Denmark Vesey Unisex T-Shirt
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Denmark Vesey’s Slave Rebellion
Denmark Vesey (also Telemaque) (c.1767 — July 2, 1822) was a Black American leader in Charleston, South Carolina. He worked as a carpenter. In June 1822 he was accused and convicted of being the leader of “the rising,” a potentially major slave revolt which was scheduled to take place in the city on July 14. He was executed on July 2.
Likely born into slavery in St. Thomas, Vesey was enslaved by Captain Joseph Vesey in Bermuda for some time before being brought to Charleston, where he gained his freedom. Vesey won a lottery and purchased his freedom around the age of 32. He had a good business and a family, but was unable to buy his first wife Beck and their children out of slavery. Vesey became active in the Second Presbyterian Church.
In 1818 he became one of the founders of an independent African Methodist Episcopal (AME) congregation in the city, which became known as the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church after the Civil War. The AME Church was the first independent black denomination in the US, founded in Philadelphia two years earlier. Vesey’s congregation in Charleston began with the support of white clergy in the city. It rapidly attracted 1,848 members, making it the second-largest AME congregation in the nation after Mother Bethel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In 1822, Vesey was alleged to be the leader of a planned slave revolt. Vesey and his followers planned to kill slaveholders in Charleston, liberate the slaves, and sail to the black republic of Haiti for refuge. By some accounts, the revolt would have involved thousands of slaves in the city as well as others who lived on plantations which were located miles away. City officials sent a militia to arrest the plot’s leaders and many suspected followers on June 22 before the rising could begin, which was believed to be planned for July 14. No white people were killed or injured.
Vesey and five slaves were among the first group of men to be rapidly judged guilty by the secret proceedings of a city-appointed court and condemned to death. They were executed by hanging on July 2, 1822. Vesey was about 55 years old. In later proceedings, some 30 additional followers were executed. His son Sandy was also judged guilty of conspiracy and deported from the United States, along with many others. City authorities ordered that the church should be razed and its minister was expelled from the city.
The Life and Times of Denmark Vesey
Manuscript transcripts of testimony at the 1822 court proceedings in Charleston, South Carolina, and its report after the events constitute the chief source of documentation about Denmark Vesey’s life. The court judged Vesey guilty of conspiring to launch a slave rebellion and executed him by hanging.
The court reported that he was born into slavery about 1767 in St. Thomas, at the time a colony of Denmark. Captain Joseph Vesey renamed him Telemaque; historian Douglas Egerton suggests that Vesey could have been of Coromantee (an Akan-speaking people) origin. Biographer David Robertson suggests that Telemaque may have been of Mandé origin, but his evidence has not been accepted by historians.
Telemaque was purchased around the age of 14 by Joseph Vesey, a Bermudian sea captain and slave merchant. After a time, Vesey sold the youth to a planter in French Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti). When the youth was found to suffer epileptic fits, Captain Vesey took him back and returned his purchase price to the former master. Biographer Egerton found no evidence of Denmark Vesey having epilepsy later in life, and he suggests that Denmark may have faked the seizures in order to escape the particularly brutal conditions on Saint-Domingue.
Telemaque worked as a personal assistant for Joseph Vesey and served Vesey as an interpreter in slave trading, a job which required him to travel to Bermuda (an archipelago on the same latitude as Charleston, South Carolina, but nearest to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and originally settled as part of colonial Virginia by the Virginia Company) for long periods of time, and as a result, he was known to be fluent in French and Spanish as well as English. Following the Revolutionary War, the captain retired from his nautical career (including slave trading), settling in Charleston, South Carolina, which had been settled from Bermuda in 1669. Telemaque had learned to read and write by the time he and Vesey settled in Charleston.
Carolina was split in 1669 into two provinces, the southern Clarendon province (that included Charleston) and the northern Albemarle province, which became the separate colonies of South Carolina and North Carolina) in 1712. Charleston was a continental hub that was connected to Bermuda’s thriving merchant shipping trade. The trading center of the Low country’s rice and indigo plantations, the city had a majority-slave population and thriving port. In 1796, Captain Vesey wed Mary Clodner, a wealthy “free East Indian woman”, and the couple used Telemaque as a domestic at Mary’s plantation The Grove, just outside Charleston on the Ashley River.
On November 9, 1799, Telemaque won $1500 in a city lottery. At the age of 32, he bought his freedom for $600 from Vesey. He took the surname Vesey and the given name of ‘Denmark,’ after the nation ruling his birthplace of St. Thomas. Denmark Vesey began working as an independent carpenter and built up his own business. By this time he had married Beck, an enslaved woman. Their children were born into slavery under the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, by which children of a slave mother took her status. Vesey worked to gain freedom for his family; he tried to buy his wife and their children, but her master would not sell her. This meant their future children would also be born into slavery.
Along with other slaves, Vesey had belonged to the Second Presbyterian church and chafed against its restrictions on black members.
In 1818, after becoming a freedman, he was among founders of a congregation on what was known as the “Bethel circuit” of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME Church). This had been organized in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1816 as the first independent black denomination in the United States.
The AME Church in Charleston was supported by leading white clergy. In 1818 white authorities briefly ordered the church closed, for violating slave code rules that prohibited black congregations from holding worship services after sunset. The church attracted 1848 members by 1818, making it the second-largest AME church in the nation. City officials always worried about slaves in groups; they closed the church again for a time in 1821, as the City Council warned that its classes were becoming a “school for slaves” (under the slave code, slaves were prohibited from being taught to read). Vesey was reported as a leader in the congregation, drawing from the Bible to inspire hope for freedom.
By 1708, the population of the colony of South Carolina was majority enslaved, reflecting the numerous African slaves imported to the state as laborers on the rice and indigo plantations. Exports of these commodity crops, and cotton from the offshore Sea Islands, produced the wealth enjoyed by South Carolina’s planters. This elite class controlled the legislature for decades after the American Revolution. The state, the Lowcountry and city of Charleston had a majority of the population who were slaves of African descent. By the late 18th century, slaves were increasingly “country born,” that is, native to the United States. They were generally considered more tractable than newly enslaved Africans. Connections of kinship and personal relations extended between slaves in the city of Charleston and those on plantations in the Lowcountry, just as those connections existed among the planter class, many of whom had residences (and domestic slaves) in both places.
From 1791 to 1803 the Haitian Revolution of slaves and free people of color on Saint-Domingue had embroiled the French colony in violence; blacks gained independence and created the republic of Haiti in 1804. Many whites and free people of color had fled to Charleston and other port cities as refugees during the uprisings, and brought their slaves with them. In the city, the new slaves were referred to as “French Negroes”. Their accounts of the revolts and its success spread rapidly among Charleston’s slaves. The free people of color occupied a place between the mass of blacks and the minority of whites in Charleston.
In the early 1800s, the state legislature had voted to reopen its ports to importing slaves from Africa. This decision was highly controversial and opposed by many planters in the Lowcountry, who feared the disruptive influence of new Africans on their slaves. Planters in Upland areas were developing new plantations based on short-staple cotton and needed many workers, so the state approved resumption of the Atlantic trade. The profitability of this type of cotton had been made possible by the invention of the cotton gin just before the turn of the 19th century. From 1804 to 1808, Charleston merchants imported some 75,000 slaves, more than the total brought to South Carolina in the 75 years before the Revolution. Some of these slaves were sold to the Uplands and other areas, but many of the new Africans were held in Charleston and on nearby Lowcountry plantations.
Even after gaining his freedom, Vesey continued to identify and socialize with many slaves. He became increasingly set on helping his new friends break from the bonds of slavery. In 1819, Vesey became inspired by the congressional debates over the status of Missouri, and how it should be admitted to the Union, since slavery appeared to be under attack.
Vesey developed followers among the mostly enslaved blacks in the Second Presbyterian Church and then the independent AME African Church. The latter’s congregation represented more than 10% of the blacks in the city. They resented the harassment by city officials. Economic conditions in the Charleston area became difficult since an economic decline affected the city. In the year of 1821, Vesey and a few slaves began to conspire and plan a revolt. In order for the revolt to be successful, Vesey had to recruit others and strengthen his army. Because Denmark Vesey was a lay preacher, when he had recruited enough followers, he would review plans of the revolt with his followers at his home during religious classes. Vesey inspired slaves by connecting their potential freedom to the biblical story of the Exodus, and God’s delivery of the children of Israel from Egyptian slavery.
In his 50s, Vesey was a well-established carpenter with his own business. He reportedly planned the insurrection to take place on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822. This date was notable in association with the French Revolution, whose victors had abolished slavery in Saint-Domingue. News of the plan was said to be spread among thousands of blacks throughout Charleston and for tens of miles through plantations along the Carolina coast. (Both the city and county populations were majority black; Charleston in 1820 had a population of 14,127 blacks and 10,653 whites.) Within the black population was a growing upper class of free people of color or mulattos, some of whom were slaveholders. Vesey generally aligned with slaves.
Vesey held numerous secret meetings and eventually gained the support of both slaves and free blacks throughout the city and countryside who were willing to fight for their freedom. He was said to organize thousands of slaves who pledged to participate in his planned insurrection. By using intimate family ties between those in the countryside and the city, Vesey created an extensive network of supporters
His plan was first, to make a coordinated attack on the Charleston Meeting Street Arsenal. Once they secured these weapons, these Freedom Fighters planned to commandeer ships from the harbor and sail to Haiti, possibly with Haitian help. Vesey and his followers also planned to kill white slaveholders throughout the city, as had been done in Haiti, and liberate the slaves. According to records of the French Consulate in Charleston, his group was reported to have numerous members who were “French Negroes,” slaves brought from Saint-Domingue by refugee masters.
Due to the vast number of slaves who knew about the planned uprising, Vesey feared that word of the plot would get out. Vesey reportedly advanced the date of the insurrection to June 16. Beginning in May, two slaves opposed to Vesey’s scheme, George Wilson and Joe LaRoche, gave the first specific testimony about a coming uprising to Charleston officials, saying a “rising” was planned for July 14. George Wilson was a mixed-race slave who was deeply loyal to his master. The testimonies of these two men confirmed an earlier report coming from another slave named Peter Prioleau. Though officials didn’t believe the less specific testimony of Prioleau, they did believe Wilson and LaRoche due to their unimpeachable reputations with their masters. With their testimony, the city launched a search for conspirators.
Joe LaRoche had originally planned to support the rising and brought the slave Rolla Bennett to discuss plans with George Wilson, his close friend. Wilson had to decide whether to join the conspiracy described by Bennett or tell his master that there was a plot in the making. Wilson refused to join the conspiracy and urged both Laroche and Bennett to end their involvement in the plans. Wilson convinced LaRoche that they must tell his master to prevent the conspiracy from being acted out.
The Mayor James Hamilton was told, and he organized a citizens’ militia, putting the city on alert. White militias and groups of armed men patrolled the streets daily for weeks until many suspects were arrested by the end of June, including 55-year-old Denmark Vesey. As suspects were arrested, they were held in the Charleston Workhouse until the newly appointed Court of Magistrates and Freeholders heard evidence against them. The Workhouse was also the place where punishment was applied to slaves for their masters, and likely where Plot suspects were abused, or threatened with abuse or death before giving testimony to the Court. The suspects were allowed visits by ministers; Dr. Benjamin Palmer visited Vesey after he was sentenced to death, and Vesey told the minister that he would die for a “glorious cause”.
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